A couple’ve weeks ago now (time flies! I meant to write this post just after we got back) we just spent the long weekend at the Blazing Swan festival, dancing and exploring and engaging with some quite amazing artworks and people. Blazing Swan is an offshoot of the famous Burning Man festival in the US, running in rural Western Australia. This is the second year it’s run, and I think it’s doing really well.
I thought twice about writing about this, because on the face of it a music & art festival has nothing to do with sustainability or permaculture – except that it does.
One of the tenets of permaculture, and the one which has always been the hardest for me to really grasp and understand, is people care. I mean, obviously caring for people is important, but how is it a fundamental rule of equal importance to a sustainable future with caring for the ecosystems which support us? The answer – or an answer, at least – is exemplified by the community that grows at something like Blazing Swan.
The idea of the festival is around radical de-commoditisation and self-sufficiency, and it encourages a gift economy. In other words, once you get there, nothing is for sale; everything is a gift. People got up early every morning to make pancakes for breakfast for anyone who came past, as their gift to the community. Another camp made vegetarian nasi goreng. The locals from the town of Kulin, where the festival is held, brought a sheep in each evening and roasted it over a spit to give out to whoever was there and wanted some. A random woman who I’ve never met before, came up to me wearing a many-pocketed costume and asked me to choose a number between 1 and 15. She then opened the pocket with the number I’d chosen and gave me whatever was inside – a miniature LED torch as it happens. Five sound stages played dance music 24 hours a day for the full week of the festival, just for the chance to play to a crowd who wanted to listen and dance. Other people ran both planned and impromptu workshops, sharing skills that they had. And you know what happened? I started thinking, what could I bring next year, what could I do for these people to give back?
Humans have a very strong reciprocity circuit in our brains, which means that we’re psychologically wired at a very deep level to want to give gifts to people who give us things. It’s a well known psychological principle – look it up.
Community is built by people getting together and trusting one another, and part of that process is gift-giving. It’s the same reason why it’s traditional to take flowers or wine to a dinner party, to partially repay the hosts for their hospitality. We form these bonds between us by these very actions, and those bonds are important to our mental and emotional health. We’re a social species, and we genuinely need one another. Not only that, but community is the antithesis of the greed and commercialism of the eat-consume-desire-produce unlimited economic system that we inherited from the industrial revolution.
If we don’t form communities of trust, then how will we ever get other people to listen to us when we ask them to take action to protect the ecosystems that make up this beautiful planet, to make changes so that we can live in balance with the other species which call this place home? People care is important because humans alone, cold and hungry and frightened, will do anything and damage any system to survive. It’s the same single-mindedness which has put us at the top of the food chain. But humans as a group, supporting one another, don’t need to do any damage to survive. Community not only makes us happier, healthier creatures, it gives us the space to live well and do no harm.
And isn’t that what we want, really? To live well and do no harm?